The Corona Virus crisis meant a moment for reflection, strategising and funding applications at Arachne Press. When we got Arts Council England funding for nine audiobooks, we had to approach the challenge of creating them remotely, while we couldn’t get into the studio due to lockdown. Continuing our #LoveAudio celebrations, here’s a behind the scenes look at how we approached this. Cherry Potts talks to poet Jeremy Dixon, audiobook narrator Nigel Pilkington and Jessica Stone, audiobook producer at Listening Books.
Cherry Potts, Director
Having worked with Listening Books in the studio, I thought I had a rough idea how difficult it would be to record remotely – I knew what was possible, and what wasn’t, I knew that the pickups that were dealt with in seconds in the studio would be more complicated to deal with. I knew background noise would be a problem, and that with our anthologies, we needed the actors to be recording to the same standards. So I thought I knew what we were getting in to.
Having to be a director at one remove, though, not being on the ‘set’ as it were, was a real challenge; every problem was magnified by the repetitions that were necessary – and all those actors with neighbours who decide now is the perfect time to drill into the party wall! Jessica and I really bonded over the problems, admitting to occasionally shrieking as some slip happened again and again. But also, I found myself laughing out loud listening to actors apologising for burps or shrieking in their own frustration at some word that would.not.come.out.right; or sighing happily at the perfect rendition of a particular phrase.
I have to be honest; I wouldn’t choose to do it like this. I now know not to rely on an audition recording, and to audition over Zoom. Compared to being in the studio, remote recording is time consuming and frustrating, but needs must in lockdown, and when it goes well, it is a joy.
The absolute best experience has been recording A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon. Because of the sensitive material, I asked Jeremy who he wanted to read. We agreed that the reader must be a queer man, and of roughly the same age as Jeremy. Shared understanding of what it was like growing up ‘then’ was really important. I put a call out to actors I knew and to the narrators we were already working with as the people most likely to know someone; and Sophie Aldred, who has narrated two novels for us, immediately suggested Nigel Pilkington. Initially I had in my mind that we were trying to replicate Jeremy’s approach, if not actual voice, as a 15 year old and as an adult, but in the course of auditioning, with Jeremy listening in, we discovered that what was needed was a voice that was, in essence, the reader, reading for the first time – which gave a very necessary steer for what the listening experience would be – this is a book wreathed in content warnings, the tone had to be exactly right.
Nigel read some of the poems for us on the spot, and it was an emphatic yes, and the resulting files sent off to Jessica for technical approval. Short delay while Jeremy reformatted his carefully laid out and largely unpunctuated poems, so that they could be read aloud without faltering.
Nigel asked if we wanted to listen in via zoom while he recorded. I hadn’t expected that, and it was brilliant, almost like being in the studio, immediate feedback, live performance, and very moving. We just had to remember to mute when we’d finished saying how wonderful every take was! We had, of course, chosen the hottest day of the year, and Nigel was expiring in his recording cupboard, but five hours later we had a complete book.
Jeremy Dixon, Author
My first full poetry collection A VOICE COMING FROM THEN (published by Arachne Press) starts with my teenage suicide attempt and expands to encompass themes of bullying, queerphobia, acceptance and support. In one of those unplanned cosmic coincidences that you just couldn’t make up, we actually recorded the audiobook on the 42nd anniversary of that suicide attempt. So, for me, lockdown recording was very emotional before we even started and then the beautiful and varied ways in which Nige was able to read my work only added to making this one of the most memorable events of my writing career.
Usually the author would not be present in the studio during recording but one of unexpected benefits of lockdown was that it enabled me to be involved via the wonders of Zoom. My editor Cherry was also there, and we could both give small directions in pacing, emphasis, and pronunciation although Nige didn’t really need very much of this, his readings were so fantastic that I kept thinking, ‘I would love this poem if somebody else had written it’. We recorded the audiobook on what was the hottest day of the year so far and so had many breaks for water and food etc, but I was still surprised that it took nearly five hours to record everything from introduction to poems to acknowledgements.
For a writer and poet, it was an invaluable insight into the processes involved in creating an audiobook and I feel very grateful that lockdown enabled me to be a part of it.
Nigel Pilkington, Actor
Being a voice actor during lockdown? The myth of the Hydra springs to mind! – we’ve needed to grow many more heads for the many more hats that have rained down on us. When you record a book in an external studio, your entire focus can be on your performance. But when recording from home, you’re also tasked with the jobs of engineer, sound editor, and sometimes director, and it’s easy to let the performance be pushed to the back of the queue.
Not so when recording A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon, published by Arachne Press, as we took our time, allowing Jeremy’s poignant and careful words to be intoned with sensitivity. After each poem, I’d break to label the files, and this actually afforded me a natural gear change between pieces, so that each one could be approached on its merits, rather than rattling through the entire script in one pass.
So, as much as recording in lockdown has been vexing, it did actually work to our advantage in this case… and I managed NOT to lose my head…!
Jessica Stone, Producer
I have both sympathy and admiration for voice actors who’ve been forced to transition from professional studio to recording at home. Not everyone has access to quiet, non-reverberant spaces, and it can be a steep learning curve to work well with the technical equipment and recording software. This means that the raw recordings I receive from actors can vary significantly in how much interference they need from me! In this case, however, Nigel made my job as easy as it gets, with the happy result that I was free to enjoy Jeremy’s text and Nigel’s performance as I worked. I am especially fond of ‘I’m learning to shout “Oi!”’
#LoveAudio is the Publisher’s Association annual week-long digital celebration of audiobooks is designed to showcase the accessibility, innovation, and creativity of the format.Follow the hashtag on twitter.
A Voice Coming from Then will be published by Arachne Press in August 2021. It is available for pre-order now, from our webshop.
This is Jeremy’s first full collection, after his pamphlet In Retail a couple of year’s back.
A Voice Coming from Then deals honestly and straightforwardly with homophobic bullying and a youthful suicide attempt, through the presence of Spring-Heeled Jack, a demon of Victorian urban myth. It is illustrated with Jeremy’s collages of family photographs, and also contains statistics and much needed resources.
I don’t mind admitting I cried over the manuscript.
A Voice Coming from Then will also be available as an Audiobook!
We could all do with some cheer in the bleak days of January, especially this year, so courtesy of Arts Council England, we are here to do just that.
We are the proud and happy recipients of a £45,000 grant from Arts Council England
This will pay for our next ten books, and (drum roll) audio books! Which means we can smack Covid on the nose by providing another way to enjoy our books without leaving home, and provide some work to actors who aren’t allowed into a theatre just now. I’m anticipating it will also be huge fun. Putting the plans together now with our audiobook partner Listening Books
Thanks to everyone who gave us their thoughts on whether this was the right way to go. It’s one of the fastest growing sectors in literature, but it’s tough to get right, and harder still to market, so the funding will also pay for …
A part-time marketing person, and a (separate) part-time admin person for a few months, so that I can concentrate on finding and supporting new writers and guest editors. We will be advertising these posts very soon. They will be remote working, so if you think that could be you, start polishing your CV, but don’t send anything until you see the advertisment please!
The books that are being supported by the ACE grant are:
Jane: I’d love to know about your first piece of published writing?
Jeremy: My first experience of poetry as an adult was from being involved in the Bristol poetry scene, which was extremely active in the 1990s. A friend secretly entered me for a weekly slam competition and then told me that as I was always talking about how I wanted to write poetry, I now had one whole week to compose and perform two poems. I made it through the first round of the competition and was awarded a Bristol Poetry Slam pen (which I still own, and I still know the compere who gave it to me). So leading on from that my earliest pieces of published writing are two (not those first two) poems included in the 270 page Bristol Poetry Slam Anthology, published by the Pimps of the Alphabet in 1998. One of the published poems was about bumping into a man in the park late at night and the other was about being called names because I was a Take That fan, so as you can see the path of my poetry was determined at a very early stage!
Jane: What’s your favourite poem in IN RETAIL and why?
Jeremy: I just want to say how grateful I am to Cherry for showing such faith in my work and for agreeing to publish my debut poetry collection IN RETAIL. It came out last year and my relationship to the published book is still evolving, once the poems become a physical object they seems to take on a life of their own. I see the book as a complete work in it’s own right and so every poem is contributing it’s part and needs to be there. However in the process of going out (or now, staying in) and reading the poems in public there are a few that have grown very dear to me due to the way they seem to bloom and change in front of an audience. A great example of this is 00/10 in which every couplet begins with the line; This is a customer announcement. When I read the poem I love the repetition that this line allows me, meaning I can change how I perform this set of words nine times in terms of timing and emphasis and voice. I have also realised that the poem and delivery prompts a much more humorous response from an audience than I ever imagined it contained when I was writing it down and then having it printed on the page. This poem has made me push my goals when reading and to see that there are many more possibilities open to me as a performer of my own work.
Jane: Is the Coronavirus crisis having an impact on your writing?
Jeremy: Initially when the lockdown began I found myself making lots of lists of things to do and then getting involved in lots of tidying up around the flat. I seemed to be able to do a task if it was physical, but doing anything that involved any kind of mental or creative concentration was impossible. I also found that I could only really do one thing a day and then I would be totally wiped out and have no energy. This started to change when I moved teaching my physical Yoga classes onto the online Zoom platform. The discipline of Yoga helped restore my energy levels and the classes gave me a tiny routine and structure to the week and slowly the desire and ability to write began to return. At first it was through revising and editing existing work but now I have actually begun some new poems. I am also attending a lot of Zoom poetry readings, lectures and workshops and again this has given support and an impetus to my creativity.
Jane: What writing project would you like to fulfill long term?
Jeremy: The long-term writing project I am working on at the moment is a much more personal project then IN RETAIL, but it actually has it’s beginning in one of the book’s poems, 00/13. This poem was the first time I had successfully (in my own terms) written about being bullied as a teenager and the process of writing it and then publishing the book has given me the confidence to develop this idea further. I am calling the current work-in-progress A VOICE COMING FROM HIM and it will deal with the long-lasting and ongoing effect on a gay person’s life of experiencing childhood homophobia, bullying and in my case, a teenage suicide attempt. Now that all sounds really heavy and depressing, and in some ways it has to be, but in my opinion the topics involved need to addressed and acknowledged. However I also want the book to be hopeful and optimistic and to reflect (as does IN RETAIL) my interests as a maker of artists’ books. So in that respect I’m looking to include Found poems, health records, photographs, statistics etc to give the book more a sense of a whole life or lives. Some of these new poems already been published and performed and have met with positive responses, so I feel I am on the right track with the project.
Jane: What person or object would you most like to collaborate with creatively?
Jeremy: What a very timely question! I have just sent out to a local festival a proposal for a collaborative event between myself and a friend who works at Cardiff University as a Senior Assurance Advisor. We have known each other since the mid-1980s and last year we each published our first books. Our collaboration would look at our experiences since then as a female BAME writer and as a male queer poet, from dealing with labels and categorisation, underrepresentation and how it can be addressed, to creating safe spaces through creative work and the unexpected outcomes that result from publication. We are still in the very early planning stages but are aiming to create a joint performance of both of our work, trying to include different types of media and to develop new collaborative writing especially for it.
You can buy IN RETAIL and all other books mentioned, from our Webshop
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.
You can see Jeremy perform poems from IN RETAIL here:
Jeremy: You have had work accepted by many different publishers, has there been anything different about working with Arachne Press?
Cassandra: Arachne is a very personal publishing house. They reach out to their writers and involve them. Five by Five was published two years ago but I still feel part of the Arachne family.
Jeremy: You are a Buddhist and a Yoga teacher, and I wondered if these disciplines and ways of living have had any influence on your writing?
Cassandra: For sure. In fact, my PhD research at Exeter is motivated by the question of influence and overlap between writing and Buddhism, two practices that are of great importance in my life. Writing and Buddhism are forms of studying our own minds and those of others. Both require patience, mindfulness, attention to detail and being a deep listener. I would like to think that writing brings you in an experiential, slower way to an awareness of interdependence, impermanence, emptiness and the conditionality of everyday existence. Certainly, they complement one another.
Jeremy: Has the Covid 19 virus and the subsequent lockdown had any effect on your creativity?
Cassandra: As a fierce believer in independent thought and personal freedom, the first few days were disorientating. First, classes at the university stopped, then the library closed, then my daughter was sent home from school. Then I understood I wouldn’t be able to visit people I love (who live in other countries) for some time. Then the shops in our town shut and basic provisions were hard to get. It was difficult to concentrate… my writer’s mind was analysing this reaction, predicting where it would lead us politically, socially and spiritually. So many people have been dying for years all over the world from things as simple to solve as diarrhea and malnutrition or more complex like malaria and cholera, yet this virus is inspiring an exponentially greater fear… perhaps because the West can’t escape. The suffering it will cause is staggering. But in this nook, an incredible peace has descended, birdsong has replaced car engines and night skies have cleared to reveal distant stars. My daughter and I began to talk with and assist the elders in my street and we found this gentle rhythm to do yoga, study, write, garden, read and take our long walk each day. New ideas are fomenting…
Jeremy: What writing plans do you have for the future?
Cassandra: I don’t really plan much. I start new stories, as and when. I revise work in progress in between. I submit finished stories. I read.
I’m putting together my first collection gathered around the Buddhist concept of the three marks of existence (suffering, impermanence and non-self) which my creative writing supervisor at Exeter University, Andy Brown, is reading. And working on the second chapter of my thesis on the congruence between Buddhism and fiction in the short stories of George Saunders, that the University’s Buddhist Dean, John Danvers, is reading. And I’m running a workshop with a small group of creative writing undergraduates over the summer.
Jeremy: What is your approach to your writing?
Cassandra: My approach? Every day I get up, do yoga, go for a swim (run, now the pool is closed), eat breakfast and sit down to work by nine with a cup of home-roasted, freshly ground coffee. I work till four o’ clock or so. Sometimes I pick up on something in the evening for a couple more hours.
Jeremy: Would your writing be the same without your experience of travelling and living in different parts of the world?
Cassandra: No. Although I haven’t been on the road now for several years (just short trips here and there), my travels were a large part of my education. Leaving England for a decade and a half drew things from me that would have otherwise remained latent. I would say it made me stronger, wiser and (hopefully) less selfish; I met amazing hospitable, generous people who showed me other ways of thinking. This has shaped how I write and has accentuated my outlier mentality.
Jeremy: Do you have any writer heroes?
Cassandra: I wouldn’t use the word hero. I admire writers who struggle, down here, with us, but whose brilliant minds soar. Where to start? Recently, I read the often-anonymous, deeply moving poems of the earliest Buddhist nuns (reinterpreted by Matty Weingast) in The First Free Women. I still turn to long-time favourites like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Essays of Michel de Montaigne or the poetry of the Mexican so-called phoenix, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And the authors I grew up with; James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton or Raymond Carver. Or ones I discovered later: Eduardo Galeano, Maya Angelou, Tove Jansson, Charles Johnson, Jeanette Winterson, Kevin Brockmeier, George Saunders, Deborah Levy …
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.
With the booktrade suffering, we wanted to make it as easy for you to get lovely things to read as possible, so we have worked very hard to get these in the vitual shops for you. Thanks to Inpress for organising conversions and uploading!
JEREMY: You have a couple of stories in the forthcoming Arachne Press book No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book. Could you tell us about them, what was the inspiration (apart from spiders!) and how did you develop the idea into a story? And how did you know when it was finished?
DAVID: I already had a spider story, set in space, outer space. I’d made a couple of kind of newsletters – ‘Stories of sorts, all short’, I’d called them – and one had a spider in a heroic role, if you like. I know next to nothing about spiders, but I like how hugely varied they are in appearance and, especially, how they work, as it were. So after I’d written my new spider story for Cherry, I risked sending her this old bit of nonsense too.
As for the one I wrote specially, I was keen to avoid anthropomorphising spiders. I don’t know how a spider thinks. What’s their consciousness? No idea. But how might a spider behave in a situation where things could go well or badly? Get the reader to wonder. Spider doesn’t. Spider just does her thing. I did learn how spiders are adapted to detecting vibration, and that ability gave me some real spideriness in the story. The thread, you might say. Sorry.
And you asked when it was finished? When all the changes I was making were reversions to earlier words or phrases. That and Cherry’s deadline, of course.
JEREMY: What influence, if any, does your personal history have in writing a short story?
DAVID: No big single way, but in lots of small ways, I suppose. For example, I was a work psychologist, and part of the job was to describe people’s work in very exact and concise ways. The habit of choosing words for that exercise is bound to come through in making short stories. Maybe it was a good training. Trouble is, it also makes me rather intolerant of novels. Most of them seem to me to need a damn good edit, though I’ve read some brilliant exceptions recently.
And then, where I come from matters. I grew up in Barry, not far from where you now live, Jeremy, and many of my stories are set in Wales. Can I put my finger on the precise difference that that makes? Not just like that, but I do feel that the English suffer from a kind of imperial condescension towards Ireland, Wales and Scotland. I’m also in many ways quite shy, which is not a problem for writing as such, but it’s there. So, for example, how much does, for example, my sympathy for my characters stem from Welshness, or from having been a psychologist – or is it just me?
JEREMY: Has the lockdown had an effect on your writing or your writing routine?
DAVID: Not too much. And in any case, ‘routine’ is rather a strong word for what I do. ‘Habit’ would be a better word. I do miss being in cafés, and miss walking whenever and wherever I like, for the relaxation and time away from the keyboard. And casual conversations. And overhearing people talk.
JEREMY: Can you share any details of what you’re working on currently?
DAVID: Two stories. One about a search for perfection. A woman trying to make the perfect pot. Then there’s Mrs Cadwallader, landlady in the Vale of Glamorgan, and fierce opponent of three boys, becoming young men, who feature in several stories. There’s one in Liberty Tales. Via the boys I’ve been pretty hard on Mrs C, and I feel I should make it up to her. Her dead husband was a sailor. In May and June 1966 there was a seaman’s strike, and that becomes her moment. Working title, ‘Mrs Cadwallader rides again’.
And something that will probably end up as a chapbook. Thomas à Becket was killed in Canterbury Cathedral 850 years ago come December. I’ve drummed up a few friends to write some ‘Beckets’, stories between 1118 and 1170 words long, inspired by the drama, the man and all that followed, like pilgrimage and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Working title ‘Thomas à Becket’s Cat’, so you can see it’s not meant to be pious or devotional. I’m wondering whether the cat should be called Julian.*
JEREMY: What advice do you have for any new and aspiring writers who may be reading this?
DAVID: I should be asking you that, on account of your booklet on writing tips, Allow Your Pen to Lead the Way? I can’t imagine that anything I could say would be of any use to anybody. But – and this is dodging the question of course – show me a story, and I would certainly have something to say. I am wary of generalisations, because we learn more from specifics. When I was in my first job, back in the dark ages, my boss called me in about the first significant report I had put in. On her coffee table was my document, covered in red ink. Seeing my face, she laughed. Don’t worry, she said, if it was no good, I wouldn’t have done that. Perhaps that’s advice in a way.
JEREMY: You have a history of working with Arachne Press as a publisher, are your experiences with them different to other publishers you have worked with?
DAVID: Two stories in particular would not have been what they are if Cherry had not got her hands on them. ‘Mouse’, my Longest Night story was decent, but Cherry’s guidance made it sharp. I wouldn’t have got there on my own. I’ll tell you a secret, if you want to know where stories come from. Read Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, then read ‘Mouse’.
And then there was the first story of mine that Arachne published, Wednesday Afternoon (in Solstice Shorts, Sixteen Stories about Time). I’d got the story sorted. It’s based, very, very loosely, on a real, long-term liaison. But I had told the story from my perspective, reporting what someone else told me. Cherry cut straight through that. She made my informant the narrator, and introduced a device to give credibility to her knowledge of the intimate details of the two lovers – the narrator and the woman of the couple routinely sharing a glass of Muscat. I did the rest, of course, but what a difference that made.
And then Cherry asked Carrie Cohen to read it. I’d never heard anyone read a story of mine in public before, so on the day I was pretty anxious. It was a thrill. And it was hilarious. And she’d found in the story nuance that I had barely recognised myself.